Science: Because computer software is so important in scientific studies, Lucas Joppa of Microsoft Research in Cambridge, UK, and colleagues conducted a survey to determine the computational expertise of scientists. They chose a specific scientific domain—species distribution modeling—because of the potentially wide range of computer mastery within that field. Of the 400 scientists surveyed, the researchers found that a large percentage rely on peer recommendations when choosing software and that most trust the software without knowing how it works. Because it is important that users have the appropriate tools to conduct their research and that others be able to reproduce their results, Joppa’s group recommends that all researchers receive formal training in computational methods and that scientific software code be peer reviewed and made available along with the published research.
Science News: The size of the hippocampus, the brain region associated with learning and memory, can be important in how fast children learn math skills, according to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. For their study, Vinod Menon of Stanford University and colleagues focused on children in the third grade, because that is considered a critical age for the learning of basic arithmetic skills. They tested IQ and math and reading performance in 24 8- and 9-year-olds and took MRI scans of their brains. All the children then underwent eight weeks of one-on-one math tutoring. The researchers noticed that “the speed and accuracy of arithmetic problem solving increased with tutoring, with some children improving significantly more than others.” Although neither IQ nor measured mathematical ability appeared to predict how a child would perform, those with the largest hippocampuses showed the most improvement. The researchers hope the findings will help educators tailor math tutoring to individual children as opposed to the one-size-fits-all approach currently in use.
Guardian: To stimulate interest in math and science among middle school and high school students, a West Virginia delegate has proposed a bill to include science fiction reading material in the curriculum. “I’m primarily interested in things where advanced technology is a key component of the storyline, both in terms of the problems that it presents and the solutions that it offers,” said Republican state delegate Ray Canterbury. He prefers the type of science fiction that promotes imaginative thinking and problem solving that leads to positive change in the world. The concept that the reading of science fiction has much to offer in the classroom is not new—science fiction writer and physicist David Brin, for example, has long fought for the educational value of the genre and has even come up with a suggested reading list and lesson plans.
New York Times: Data science is a cross-disciplinary study that has developed alongside the enormous amounts of data—ranging from online behavior patterns to cancer tissue samples to crime rates—produced by modern technology. Data scientists use mathematical models to analyze the data, create visual or narrative descriptions, and then devise ways the data are understood or used. A report by McKinsey Global Institute suggests there will be a half million new data science jobs in the next five years, and 1.5 million executive and support staff jobs that require an understanding of data. Last year average salaries were nearly $90 000 for graduates just out of North Carolina State University’s Institute for Advanced Analytics, established in 2007. Many other universities have established similar degree programs to teach data science skills. To learn how to manipulate data, students take classes in computer science, statistics, math, and analytics, and to focus on the use of data in fields of study that interest them, they take science and social science classes.
Ars Technica: One of the questions surrounding massive open online courses (MOOCs) is whether they are more or less effective at teaching than traditional classes. A commonly highlighted problem with MOOCs is how easy it is for students to be distracted from the videos. Karl Szpunar of Harvard University may have a solution, taken from real-world classrooms: pop quizzes. Based on previous study he’d done on learning effectiveness, he divided an online lecture into four pieces. Half of the class were given brief arithmetic exercises followed by subject matter tests after watching each piece. The other half only performed the arithmetic after watching each piece. A group not part of the normal class was tested for “mind-wandering” by participating in a brief question and answer session between each piece. At the end of the lecture all three groups were given subject matter tests. The group that had done the pop quizzes performed significantly better on the cumulative test than the other two groups. Szpunar hopes to perform similar tests on larger groups and in actual MOOC settings. And it seems likely that the technique of frequent quizzes on subject matter could be useful in real-world classrooms as well.
Science: NSF recently released its biennial report Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering. Using the report’s data, NSF statistician Daniel Foley charted the demographics of US doctoral degree recipients employed in industry and in two- and four-year academic institutions. For the cohort of scientists who received their degrees between 2006 and 2010, white scientists are no longer disproportionately the majority. Non-Hispanic white people are approximately 63% of the US population as of 2011. That is roughly the same proportion of white doctoral recipients employed at both four- and two-year institutions. In industry, they are actually underrepresented, making up only about 50% of the population. Asians have had their largest growth in employment in industry and in four-year institutions, while underrepresented minority scientists—primarily African Americans and Hispanics—have made their largest gains in two-year institutions.
Science: To simplify France’s national education and research system and reduce competition among researchers and institutions, the country’s parliament has drafted a bill consisting of 20 measures. The proposals include the creation of regional groupings of universities and research laboratories, a stronger and clearer national strategic research agenda, an improved evaluation procedure for laboratories and education programs, and 8400 new permanent research staff positions. Funding for universities is still up in the air, however, as requests for budgetary guarantees have largely been ignored. “Many in the scientific community still hope to influence the Parliament to introduce last-minute changes,” writes Elisabeth Pain for Science.
Science: Since the 1920s the Turkish constitution has banned the wearing of headscarves by women who work in the public sector. However, the ban has always been controversial, and since 2003 Turkey’s government has been dominated by a moderate Islamic political party, the Justice and Development Party. Now a senior astrophysics professor could go to prison for preventing female students wearing scarves from attending his class. Rennan Pekünlü, who teaches at Ege University in Izmir, claims he was upholding the Turkish constitution. Nevertheless, he was found guilty last September of violating the rights of women and faces 25 months in prison unless he wins his appeal next month. And he is not the only secularist academic having problems. In June of last year, Kemal Gürüz, the former head of Turkey’s Council of Higher Education and a prominent academic reformer, was arrested; Gürüz remains in prison.
Ars Technica: State legislatures in the US are responsible for defining the educational curricula of the state school systems. It is not unusual for legislators to introduce bills that would promote criticism of established science such as climate change or evolution. However, a bill presented in the Missouri House of Representatives by Rick Brattin takes science education legislation to a new level. Brattin’s bill begins by redefining several terms: Scientific theory is described as “an inferred explanation of incompletely understood phenomena about the physical universe based on limited knowledge, whose components are data, logic, and faith-based philosophy”; hypothesis is defined as “a scientific theory reflecting a minority of scientific opinion which may lack acceptance because it is a new idea, contains faulty logic, lacks supporting data, has significant amounts of conflicting data, or is philosophically unpopular.” Using those definitions, the bill then explicitly equates the legitimacy of evolution with intelligent design, says that both topics must be given equal time in classrooms, and even mandates that textbooks have an approximately equal number of pages devoted to each. The bill isn’t likely to make much progress in the legislature, but it is an interesting development in the attempt to legislate scientific principles.
New York Review of Books: For decades, New York University education professor Diane Ravitch has written about, spoken about, and served US education, including as an official in the administration of President George H. W. Bush. In her NYRB commentary she bluntly condemns teacher-performance metrics based on scores from standardized tests. Framing her national argument in terms of current education politics in New York, she asserts that such tests “are not yardsticks” or “scientific instruments,” but instead “are social constructions, and quite apart from how contingent their results are on the social and economic background of the students being tested, they are also subject to human error, sampling error, random error, and other errors.” She also condemns common analogies: “It is true that the cleanliness of restaurants can be given a letter grade,” that “agribusiness can be measured by crop yields,” and that “corporations can be measured by their profits,” she writes. But “to apply a letter grade or a numerical ranking to a professional is to radically misunderstand the complex set of qualities that make someone good at what they do. It is an effort by economists and statisticians to quantify activities that are at heart matters of judgment, not productivity.”